After Obama’s underwhelming performance at the first general election presidential debate, I was depressed like most liberals. But after two and a half days, I ebullient. What happened? The Jobs Report came out and unemployment had dropped below 8% for the first time in years. You may remember that I was not the only person to think that this was a big deal. Many conservatives suggested that the BLS was faking the number to make Obama look good. Whatever. But the point is that I (and others) knew that Jobs Report completely overshadowed the debate performance, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time.
I bring this up because Molly Ball wrote an interesting article this afternoon, 5 False Assumptions Political Pundits Make All the Time. I can’t resist a headline like that, because I’m always on the lookout for ways that I might be embarrassing myself. Of course, in this case, it just showed how brilliant I am.
The article discusses a paper by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina. The five false assumptions are: (1) the electorate is not “polarizing,” it’s “sorting”; (2) candidates change more than voters do; (3) independents aren’t partisans; (4) “division” is easy to overstate; and (5) campaign ads really, really, really don’t make much difference. Assumption (3) is not all that strong. We know that most independents tend to be either Democratic or Republican. All he’s saying is that people who call themselves independent really are more independent than those who pick a party. That seems pretty obvious to me and hardly worth noting.
It is assumption (5) that I found most interesting, and it is what takes us back to the debate performance and Jobs Report. What seems very clear to me (I discussed this a little about Stuart Stevens the other day) is that campaigns don’t matter much. It is all about the politicians make their case for their preferred policies. But as we know from assumption (2), people don’t really change their opinions. In any national election, if everyone voted, the Democrat would always win. As a Democrat, the main thing I care about regarding elections is that lots of people get out to vote. (Otherwise, I care that all we do is nominate moderates!)
During the period leading up to the November elections, I knew that the economy was doing better. It wasn’t doing a lot better, but it was clear that we were heading in the right direction. Once that very strong Jobs Report came out, I was pretty sure that Obama had the election in the bag. It wasn’t that the report made Obama look good (and thus the conservatives screaming made no sense). It was what the report said about the economy. I think it comes down to the fact that poor people especially tend to not bother voting if they feel things are going badly. Regardless, take away all of Romney’s gaffs. Take away the poor convention. Take away Obama’s two good debates. Take away Hurricane Sandy and Chris Christie. Obama would still have won that election.
Let me rephrase what Firoina said: Campaigns really, really, really don’t make much difference.